A Disaster Preparedness Meeting was held to address the concerns of departmental heads at the Office of the Prime Minister on Aug. 23 with recently appointed Senior Deputy Family Island Administrator Maxine Duncombe chairing the meeting.
Chief Superintendent of Police Kevin Mortimer was the first to outline several outstanding needs as he also serves in the capacity of a National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) representative during the meeting. Supt. Mortimer said that more shelter managers are needed in the event adverse conditions are presented, that shelters be properly identified and inspected beforehand, and that the need for communication supplies like radios and satellite phones be attended to.
He also insisted that a Memorandum of Understanding be put in place with a heavy equipment company to ensure that necessary equipment are readily available. Another of his concerns was about the location of bathrooms at Central Abaco Primary School (CAPS) in relation to classrooms during a hurricane.
Regina Parotti of the Bahamas Red Cross assuaged Supt. Mortimer’s concerns having worked as a shelter manager since 1999 where there has been in excess of 600 people at the school, yet she has never encountered an issue with access to bathrooms. However, she said that there are measures in place should an issue arise.
Kimberly Wells from the Department of Environmental Health joined in the conversation to confirm that her department and the Department of Social Services work hand in hand to carry out inspections of all shelters. The team at Environmental Health mobilizes after the storm to treat standing water and breaches in septic systems. Their major challenge lies with transportation.
“It’s good to know the resource persons we have available,” Duncombe noted. “That way we can improve on our weakness and rely on and learn from each other’s strengths.”
Ruth Smith represented the Department of Education on behalf of Dr. Lenora Black, District Superintendent. The first course of action, she said, would be to erect a sign at CAPS indicating that the school is a designated hurricane shelter, and to identify classrooms closer to the restrooms.
Meanwhile, Ettamae Jones, director of Abaco’s Department of Social Services, talked about the need for training, which has been a sore point each year. She, too, emphasized the need for NEMA signs to be posted on buildings to identify them as hurricane shelters, and emphasized that the signs are to remain up. Another issue for Social Services was lack of funding to accompany workers from the Ministry of Works and Environmental Health to the cays to inspect shelters there, so they have to rely on second-hand reports.
Jones said that there are 15 shelters designated for the entire island of Abaco. She said that they have hurricane kits shelters with the items needed by shelter managers including staple food items. They are also given funds to assist those who need to purchase supplies and don’t have them.
Roscoe Thompson III was there to represent the Marsh Harbour/Spring City Township as well as the Central Abaco District Council. He recalled the Council purchasing VHF radios several years ago, but was not aware of their whereabouts.
Sarone Kennedy represented the Red Cross and the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire Department. He mentioned the use of the police trunking system, which is a two-way radio system used by government entities that uses a control channel to automatically direct radio traffic. He said that VHFs make up their baseline communication during storms, and that although communication can sometimes be a challenge, the police have done an excellent job with relaying messages.
Supt. Mortimer confirmed that the trunking system is connected through the police system. He suggested writing Capt. Stephen Russell, director of NEMA, to travel to Abaco to hear their concerns particularly regarding communication. He informed them that NEMA’s Distribution Center is located in Freeport, and that the contact person there is Tammy Mitchell.
Silbert Mills, CEO of the Bahamas Christian Network (BCN), urged the committee to recommend that Abaco have its own distribution center – an idea which was wholeheartedly supported by Administrator Duncombe.
Kyron Darville, assistant administrator at the Department Of Public Health, said that in the event of a disaster they are ready at the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre, but not as ready as they could be. They also rely on the police communication system and are equipped with a mobile and fixed base antenna but the fixed base needs to be erected for it to be fully functional.
Another challenge is that the healthcare centre’s 6,000 gallon fuel tank capacity has not been met, and it is their desire to have it full or nearly full to capacity for the healthcare center’s backup generator. The fuel problem led to another problem whereas the living accommodations are not connected to the back-up generator. Darville informed Duncombe that five out of six of the residences are occupied.
Administrator Duncombe’s main concern was their being able to perform in unexpected situations that may arise for instance if someone died or in keeping medication.
“What’s in the fuel tank, and how long can it last if a disaster happened now?” she questioned Darville.
He responded that they had enough fuel on hand to last four to five days with continuous running of the generator. However, Terry Hodgkins of the Airport Authority begged to differ and suggested that the fuel would only last about a day.
John Pintard of the National Emergency Medical Service (NEMS) spoke about the amount of vehicles they have available. However, NEMS employees do not go out during storms. Once the winds climb to 45-50 mph, he said all vehicles are grounded. While they don’t have any VHFs, they do have a satellite phone. The NEMS workers are dispersed among shelters during hurricanes, and work closely with the police and Red Cross representatives.
Hodgkins was please to say that the fuel is topped up for the airport generator, and that two other airport workers accompany him to ensure that the compound is safe. They also check the runway for flooding, etc. He said the airport is shut down once the wind speed reaches 40 mph. His only concern was communication.
Petty Officer John Ingraham of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) announced that they have a complement of eight officers whose primary duty is to secure the Marsh Harbour port. Measures are put in place within 36-48 hours once a hurricane system is detected. The RBDF has a VHF and satellite phone in their possession along with a hurricane kit. They assist in managing shelters, and P/O Ingraham informed the members that there would be a new team arriving in another week with the same capabilities.
Kennedy interjected that he was also representing the Abaco Christian Council, and that there are counselors available to assist those in need of counseling in the event of a disaster. He said that the fire department is 100 percent volunteer based, and that they are working on increasing their response time. However, fire trucks stay put during storms and are only available after storms have passed. He concluded that a partnership with members of the community is desired.
As a Red Cross member, he emphasized that volunteers are always Red Cross ready, and that shelter management training can be provided to interested persons free of charge.
Anthony Bostwick, who’s in charge of Water and Sewerage, said they recently completed their third drill. Employees work on 86 hour shifts, and know what to do. Bostwick’s main concern was an issue with a generator in Casuarina Point. During a storm, Water and Sewerage completely shuts down to save their equipment. There are plans to conduct a complete inspection of fire hydrants.
George Martin of Bahamas Power and Light (BPL), acknowledged that they also have a plan in place should a disaster occur. BPL shuts down when wind speeds are sustained at 35-40 mph because of risks involved to their equipment.
Following a storm, BPL workers ensure that stations are fully functional and then the priority is to restore power to clinics, police stations, the airport, government buildings, commercial buildings, and finally, communities. BPL is engaged in ongoing tree trimming exercises. However, they only cut trees impacting lines and ability to supply not trees on people’s private properties. He apologized for recent power outages on the island.
Frederick Rodgers from the Port Department said there is a plan in place when winds and waves get at a certain level. The Port is in need of a part for its generator, and a major leak was discovered in the roof of warehouse during the last hurricane. One or two channel markers are in need of repair, and their responsibility is to ensure that the Elbow Reef Lighthouse is fully functional.
Wynsome Ferguson, who is in charge of the Abaco Tourist Office, said they recently completed satellite phone testing and their hurricane kit is ready. The first order of the day for Tourism is to contact all hotels and marinas to determine the guest count and liaise with airlines to get them off the island. For those who stay, they must find a place for them to stay. Once the hurricane has passed, they check to see if the airport has opened and find out if there is any damage to hotels or marinas. Overall, Ferguson said that Tourism is in good standing.
Smith asked about the availability of CPR classes and fire drills at schools and for the citizenry. Parotti said that first aid certification is needed prior to CPR training. The shelter manager training is free, but the other courses are not. Nevertheless, P/O Ingraham said the Defence Force is always available to conduct fire drills. Thompson said Local Government is in a position to assist with purchasing equipment, but he would have to talk to George Cornish in terms of what the Council is prepared to do.
Wrapping up the meeting, Administrator Duncombe indicated that the list of shelters for Central Abaco needs to be update. Points of action were recorded and priorities included contacting Capt. Stephen Russell, as well as the long-term goal of securing Abaco’s own distribution center, and more volunteers for the Marsh Harbour Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.
“Wherever the office of the administrator can help to make some of these happen, we will make it happen, so I thank all of you for coming and for participating and we will continue to be in touch with each other,” Duncombe said. “I look forward to us working as a team, and that we test these systems to make sure they work and we look at our response system so that we will not be caught off guard. I do not wish to be caught off guard.”
Elaine Martinborough from the Department of Housing recorded the minutes for the meeting.